Poet uses words to connect with students

Wali Shah takes pictures with students following his talk at Gloversville High School on Friday. (The Leader-Herald/Kerry Minor)

GLOVERSVILLE — In his junior year in a Toronto high school, Wali Shah’s teacher pulled him aside when she noticed he was unengaged during a section on William Shakespeare.

Speaking with him in the hallway, Shah said she asked him where the richest place on earth was.

Shah said he first answered Dubai and New York before waiting for the right answer.

She told him “the richest place on earth is a graveyard, because it is rich of untapped potential.”

His teacher then handed him a copy of the book “The Rose that Grew From Concrete,” a collection of the poetry of rapper Tupac Shakur. Shah said this was a moment that opened his mind to power of words.

“Music and poetry can be used as a tool to change the world,” he said.

Shah, a college senior, made GHS his last stop on a three-day tour of spots around Fulton and Montgomery counties, where he spoke with teens and college students about topics including self esteem and mental health.

Using spoken-word poetry, Shah connected with the students by talking to them like a friend would.

He chatted with them about their favorite rappers, even laying down his own opinions of a few rappers. He also got students to engage in skits with him to open the students up to his message.

He told students that poetry is big part of hip-hop music, with rap being an acronym for rhythm and poetry.

“Poetry is embedded in hip-hop and rap culture, when I found this out, I knew I had to start writing poetry of my own,” he said.

Students got audibly excited to learn Shah has freestyle rapped with Grammy-winner Kendrick Lamar, whose album “To Pimp a Butterfly” was chosen as the best album of the year for 2015 by numerous music critics.

Shah performed poems for Gloversville students about his past history getting in trouble, a poem about his feelings following a breakup with a girlfriend and a poem about advice he’d have for a future son.

The poems touch on struggling to fit in, feeling like young men can’t express emotions and trying to cope with situations happening around him.

“We try so hard to fit in everyday, boys and girls. Boys feel like they have to put on this facade and be all hard, and tough and cool. They’ve got to be jacked like a balloon animal to fit in. Girls…you feel like you’ve got to wear a thousand pounds of makeup before you leave the house. You feel like you’ve got to fit into a size two dress to be acceptable. All these standards of beauty we feel we have to adhere to, that we try to live up to are so flawed,” Shah said. “We find that we look at ourselves in the mirror and we say ‘Man we’re so ugly. We’re not cool enough. We don’t fit in.’ It’s not you that’s ugly. It’s society that’s ugly. So don’t try to change yourself to fit into society. Change society.”

Following the events, Shah took time to take a selfie and speak with the many students who lined up after each discussion.

Talking after the event, he said the students at Gloversville High School where some of the most respectful and attentive he’s spoken to.

“This audience was amazingly wonderful,” Shah said. “Everybody was just so kind and courteous. When I was performing my poetry you could hear a pin drop. It’s so nice as a performer to have that.”

Shah said he has made amazing friends here the area, including HFM Prevention Council’s Renee Carr and FM’s Robin DeVito, who helped get Shah to come to the area. Shah said it has been wonderful getting to stay with DeVito and have her take him around the area to meet with students.

Shah said DeVito came to Canada to meet him and his family. He said she spoke with him about how he could make a difference here and decided to come to the area.

Shah said this is only his second time performing in the United States.

“All these kids believe in me and support me and I am just so thankful for all of them and for this opportunity to come to Upstate New York and do what I do,” Shah said.

Shah had a busy 48 hours preceding his GHS visit. He met with students at the Greater Amsterdam High School to give them a similar presentation. He held workshops around the region and met with student at the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services’ Adirondack Academy.

He also made his way to Fulton-Montgomery Community College where he did a presentation in the theater and took part in a panel on forum on Islamaphobia. Shah was greeted the forum at FMCC with students holding supportive posters and chanting his name.

Shah said he also visited the Creative Connections Clubhouse in Amsterdam, a place he found to be inspiring. He said the couple hours kids are at the clubhouse they have a great time.

“The kids have access to computers, and musical instruments and basketball court,” Shah said. “Seeing the kids so happy and smiling all the time, the way they connect with the staff is beautiful. Not only does the city of Amsterdam need that, but every city in New York needs that. Every city in the whole country needs that.”

Shah said his message for kids who didn’t get a chance to see his performance is the same thing he would tell any kid: “you are not alone in what you go through. There is always someone that will be there for you.”

He said teachers, counselors, religious leaders, community leaders will be there to care.

“It’s just about being brave enough to say I’m going through this. You never know, there could be other people going through a similar problem and maybe there is somebody who could really help you,” he said. “If that one kid gets that one message, maybe they’ll talk about it and maybe get the help they actually need.”

Kerry Minor can be reached at kminor@leaderherald.com.